As Congress braces for a possible government shutdown next month and the fresh danger of default before Thanksgiving, the departure of Kumar, the chief negotiator for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is a huge loss. And he’s just the latest in a surprising exodus of senior GOP staffers that has worried people in both parties and darkened the outlook for the confrontation this fall.
Largely invisible to the public, these are the nuts-and-bolts guys the bosses trust to negotiate critical details with Democrats, draft deals into law and explain them to the GOP rank and file. Losing them now — weeks before the next fight — weakens Republicans and leaves Democrats without familiar negotiating partners.
Moreover, many observers worry that the exodus is an ominous sign that Republicans see low odds for significant progress toward taming the debt and an indication of the risk that another grinding, pressure-cooker confrontation really could end in catastrophe this time.
“Maybe they don’t see any deal. Otherwise, you would think they would be up for the challenge. It might tell you how difficult the environment is,” said G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who spent 25 years advising Senate Republicans on the budget. “Even these people who have been able to thread the needle are exhausted and do not want to be part of a breakdown.”
In addition to losing Kumar, McConnell has lost his longtime floor general, Dave Schiappa, who left after nearly three decades to take a job as vice president at the Duberstein Group, a downtown lobbying firm. And House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has lost his chief negotiator, Brett Loper, a policy expert who came close to hammering out a grand bargain with the White House in 2011. Loper left in June to become a lobbyist for American Express.
Kumar, a 13-year veteran from Dallas who got his start with former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and has since served a series of GOP Senate leaders, has been at McConnell’s side through every major fiscal deal since President Obama took office. He is taking time off to be a stay-at-home dad to his 3-year-old daughter, Kiera. Friday is his last day.
In a tribute on the Senate floor, McConnell called Kumar “indispensable,” the rare person “who combines a brilliant mind for policy and a brilliant mind for politics in one package.” He added: “A lot of senators will miss him every bit as much as I will.”
All three men cited personal reasons for their decisions. Still, White House negotiators see their departures as a bad sign. One administration official, who dealt with Kumar during the fiscal-cliff talks, called him an “evil genius” whom the White House never trusted totally but viewed as a principled opponent who knew the policy, had “a nose for the deal” and was always genuinely trying to defuse the bomb du jour.